The Tucker Torpedo was an advanced automobile conceived by Preston Tucker and briefly produced in Chicago, Illinois in 1948. Only 51 examples were made before the company folded on March 3, 1949, amid allegations of fraud.
After World War II, entrepreneurs like Henry J. Kaiser and Preston Tucker saw an opportunity to enter the automobile market. The United States government was auctioning off surplus factories and giving preference to upstarts rather than the large corporations that had benefitted from war production.
Studebaker was first with an all-new post-war model. But Tucker took a different tack, designing a safety car with innovative features and modern styling. His specifications called for a rear engine like Porsche, disc brakes, fuel injection, the location of all instruments on the steering wheel, and a padded dashboard.
Famed stylist Alex Tremulis, previously of Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg, was hired on December 24, 1946 and given just six days to finalize the design. On December 31, 1946, Tucker approved the design, dubbed the Tucker Torpedo. He had also hired another firm to create an alternate body, but only the horizontal taillight bar from that model appeared on the final car.
The mechanical components were innovative. The perimeter frame surrounded the vehicle for crash protection. The steering box was behind the front axle to protect the driver in a front-end accident. But numerous Tucker innovations were dropped. Magnesium wheels, disc brakes, and a direct-drive torque converter transmission were all left on the drawing board.
The car's innovative engine continued on the production path for a while longer, however. It was a "flat" (horizontally opposed) 6-cylinder with hemispherical combustion chambers, fuel injection and overhead valves operated by oil pressure rather than a camshaft. These features would have been auto industry firsts in 1948, but as engine development proceeded, problems appeared. The large 589 in? (9.7 L) engine functioned, but the 150 hp (66 kW) motors valvetrain proved problematic. The engine and Cord transmission were mounted on a separate subframe which could be lowered and removed in minutes with just six bolts removed - Tucker envisioned loaner engines being quickly swapped in for service.
The final car was only 60 in (1524 mm) tall, but was very roomy inside. It featured a steered third headlight, dubbed the "Cyclops Eye", for use in turns. It lit up whenever the car was steered by more than 10 degrees. Tremulis' design was called the most aerodynamic in the world, and though it still sported pre-war type fenders, it was startlingly modern. Mathematically-computed coefficient of drag was only .27, though this was 'rounded up' publicly to .30.
The world premiere of the much-hyped car was set for July 17, 1947. Over 3,000 people showed up for lunch, a train tour of the plant, and the unveiling in the main auditorium. The unveiling looked doomed, however, as last-minute problems with the car cropped up. The suspension snapped (or was cut), and the car would not move. Tucker ad-libbed on stage for two hours while emergency repairs were carried out. It was finally pushed onto a turntable by hand, and the curtain was lifted to thunderous applause. Tucker was joined on stage by his family, with his daughter smashing a champagne bottle on the "Cyclops Eye" and soaking her father. Also on stage were Tucker's engineers, still covered in grease from the last-minute repairs.
Tucker had promised 150 hp (112 kW), and his innovative 589 was not working out, so another engine was sourced. The company first tried the Lycoming aircraft engine but it would not fit in the car's rear engine compartment. The Franklin air-cooled helicopter flat-6 did fit, however, so Tucker purchased four samples for $5,000 each. The company's engineers converted it to a water-cooled design, and its 166 hp (124 kW) pleased Tucker. He quickly bought the Franklin company to secure the engine source.
Another failed element of the prototypes was the Cord transmission, designed for front-engine/front wheel drive use. It could not handle the power of the Franklin engine, so a new design was needed. The creator of the Buick Dynaflow transmission was called in, designing a special "Tuckermatic" transmission with only 27 parts, about 90 less than normal. This transmission was to cause more trouble, however, as the initial prototype lacked a reverse gear. A skeptical press reported that the car could not go backward, hurting its reputation.
Although it was well-funded, the company decided to raise more money in order to secure its future and credibility. $17,000,000 was raised in a stock issue, one of the first speculative IPOs. Another money maker was the Tucker Accessories Program. Future buyers could purchase accessories, like seat covers, the radio, and luggage, before their car was built. This brought an additional $2,000,000 into the company.
With the final design in place, Preston Tucker took the pre-production cars on the road to show them in towns across the country. The car was an instant success, with crowds gathering wherever they stopped. One report says that Tucker was pulled over by a police officer intent on getting a better look at the car.
One of Tucker's most innovative business ideas caused trouble for the company, however. His Accessories Program raised funds by selling accessories before the car was even in production. This concept was investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the United States Attorney, and led to an indictment of company executives. Although all charges were eventually dropped, the negative publicity destroyed the company and halted production of the car.
To counteract the bad press, Tucker again took the cars on the road. He scheduled a two-week public test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a few of the 37 cars that had been built. One car was rolled at 100 mph (160 km/h), and the driver walked away with just bruises. Public perception was changing from outrage at Tucker's fraud to anger at the press and the government.
Today, the Torpedo has fame far greater than would be expected from its modest production run. When the cars are auctioned off, they command high prices, and many command prominent spots in automotive museums. Tucker #1043 recently sold and holds the record selling price of $700,000. The Tucker story and legacy was documented in the 1988 movie, Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Starring Jeff Bridges, the film was produced by George Lucas and directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
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